Are Surveillance Technologies Really So Bad?

In 7th grade, our English teacher read us a chapter from an anthology of science fiction stories entitled 2041: Twelve Stories About the Future. In the chapter, entitled “Lose Now, Pay Later,” two kids, Deb and Trinja, stumble upon a shop at their local mall that distributes a popular new dessert, called swoodie. While the dessert possesses a certain charm that sends customers into a nostalgic delirium, it also proves to be incredibly fattening, and soon, the kids begin visiting a mysterious booth next to the ice cream shop that offers quick and easy weight loss. For every ten pounds lost, the booth stamps the kids with a small, blue mark. By the end of the book, Trinja notices that the blue marks are beginning to form a pattern around his wrist, like a tracking device. The story ends with the suggestion that the magical dessert and booth were created as part of a system, either by aliens or a government agency, to lure in customers and brand them with tracking devices.

PrivacyThough the author’s story about alien conspiracy was published in 1994, its predictions about humanity’s willingness to sacrifice privacy, and even our own bodies, for the sake of convenience are surprisingly accurate. According to Preston Russet’s article A Contemporary Portrait of Information Privacy, the nature of “privacy” in the digital world is rapidly changing. The convergence of technology and our everyday lives has fostered a society in which privacy is no longer a primary concern. As Russet notes, “we have a collective subtext of persuasive hopelessness regarding the continued defense of privacy” (41). In other words, we’ve given up.

But I’m not here to discuss how the encroachment of technology into our mind and body is the end of the world, regardless of whether or not I believe that to be the case. Rather, I’ve come to play Devil’s Advocate by asking the following question: could the development of such technologies be a good thing? In his discussion on surveillance technologies, Russet explains how, through tagged cell phones and social networking profiles, “routines emerged that could be used to predict future behavior” (44), meaning, we are in the process of becoming digitized, turned into analyzable subjects as if we were nothing more than collections of data. However, such an idea has been explored in the popular media for some time. Minority Report (2002), for example, questions whether such technologies could be used for good (specifically, whether these “prediction” functions could stop a criminal before he or she commits their crime). Tracking devices, can be used for less invasive purposes (depending on your definition of invasive, of course).

While tracking devices in animals has been a fairly common practice, tracking devices in humans is becoming increasingly more appealing. With the threat of abduction that movies like Taken (2008) and The Call (2013) portray, the demand for human-tracking devices in children increases. Is this ethical? Perhaps not entirely, but if such a technology could prevent the disappearance or death of a child, would the benefits outweigh the consequences?

Then again, in asking that very question, are we proving Russet’s ultimate conclusion? That we’ve given up on the preservation of privacy for certain perks and the promise of safety? Would we settle for a quick and easy fix, like the kids from Farley’s story, if the only downside was the technology’s encroachment into the human body?

Image via Amazon

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